Was "Louie Louie" Banned in Indiana?

The pep band at Purdue University basketball games likes to play the old rock 'n' roll song "Louie Louie."  When they do, I always think "Hey, you can't play that in Indiana!"  Here's why.

The Kingsmen recorded their famous version of "Louie Louie" in 1963, and by December it was in the Billboard Top 10.  Anyone who has listened to this record knows that the words are pretty much unintelligible.  Maybe that's why rumors began to circulate that the lyrics were obscene.

On Tuesday, January 21, 1964, Governor Matthew Welsh of Indiana received a complaint from a Frankfort, Indiana teenager, claiming that the lyrics to "Louie Louie" were obscene.  Apparently the teenager sent a copy of the obscene lyrics as evidence.  Jack New, the Governor's executive secretary, sent a messenger to a nearby music store to buy a copy of the tune. 

New and the Governor listened to it.  New told the Indianapolis Star "We slowed it down and we thought we could hear the words."  Billboard reported that the Governor said his ears "tingled."  The Governor's press secretary, James McManus, said that the words were "indistinct, but plain if you listen carefully." 

Governor Welsh then sent a letter to Reid Chapman, a Fort Wayne radio and TV personality and President of the Indiana Broadcasters Association.  Music writer Dave Marsh interviewed Welsh in 1991 about the letter, and quoted Welsh as saying "My position with respect to the whole matter was never that the record should be banned.  At no time did I ever pressure anybody to take the song off the air.  I suggested to him [Chapman] that it might be simpler all around if it wasn't played."  The Governor had written to Chapman because he "was a friend of mine.  I knew him; we weren't close."

In response to the Governor's letter, Chapman sent telegrams to member radio stations asking them to stop playing the record. 

Naturally, the Kingsmen and their record label, Wand, objected to any attempt to take their hit off the air.  With admirable investigative spirit, the Indianapolis Star reporter called Lynn Easton, leader of the band, on Thursday night, January 23.  Easton, the Star reported, "somewhat angrily" denied that the band sung obscene lyrics.  "We took the words from the original version by Richard Berry and recorded them faithfully.  There was no clowning around," Easton said.  Coincidently, the Kingsmen were scheduled to tour the Midwest the following week, the Star said.

Billboard quoted a spokesman for the Wand record label saying "Not in anyone's wildest imagination are the lyrics as presented on the Wand recording in any way suggestive, let alone obscene."  People at the company speculated that there might be a bootleg version of the record in circulation.

The ever-alert Star reporter asked the Governor's secretary Jack New whether they had listened to the authentic Wand recording.  New said no one had checked.  "So far as I know, the record we heard could be a counterfeit," he said.

On Thursday, January 23, LeRoy New, the chief trial deputy prosecutor for Marion County (Indianapolis) assigned two investigators to look into the obscenity charges.  After listening to the record at three speeds, the investigators found nothing obscene, though they said the words were garbled.  Marsh quotes New as saying "the record is an abomination of out-of-tune guitars, an overbearing jungle rhythm and clanging cymbals."  But Marsh notes that New didn't think the words were obscene, and the obscenity laws of the day "just didn't reckon with dirty sounds."

The Star reporter took the whole controversy lightly--the January 24 article is titled "Young Singers Dismiss As Hooey Obscenity Charge in 'Louie Louie.'"  Not so the Star editorial page.  Did they object to government censorship?  Or were they aghast at the 'jungle rhythms' played on the radio?

Both.  The Star's editorial on January 27 came out against government censorship and rock and roll.  The editorial said

As a music critic, Governor Matthew E. Welsh is probably a good lawyer.  . . . The Governor has no power to censor what goes over the radio stations of Indiana.  Neither he nor any other public official should be given such a warrant.

But the Star also wrote

Some stations have decided to fill their programs with a cacophony of noise, and a collection of musical garbage.  Call it what you like--folk music, rock 'n' roll, bop, hip or what-not.  In a frantic chase after the elusive ratings, stations have broadcast with little regard for good taste, musically or otherwise.

The Star concluded

The Governor did not act as a censor because he can't.  He did become concerned enough to direct the attention of the broadcast business in this state to a problem that has been shrugged aside in the past.  Few people dump trash in the living room.  There should be little place for musical garbage in the American home.

Soon after "Louie Louie" was (or was not) banned in Indiana, it dropped from the charts.  Perhaps the controversy about its obscene (or not obscene) lyrics helped do it in.  Of course, two weeks later, on Sunday, February 9, the Beatles appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show.  Lots of American bands had trouble selling records after that. 

Give the late Governor Matt Welsh the last word.  Dave Marsh interviewed Welsh in 1991, and reported that the former Governor was "frustrated that 'Louie Louie' is all he's remembered for."  Welsh said "I thought the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot, and not worth any extended pursuit.  I have no interest in it either way."  Welsh did not think the matter was important enough to write about in his excellent memoir. 

Perhaps Dave Marsh remembers Governor Welsh only for "Louie Louie."  Anyone interested in Indiana taxes should know, though, that in 1963 Matt Welsh pushed through the General Assembly a series of tax reform bills that established Indiana's sales, individual income and corporate income taxes.  Modern public finance in Indiana began with Matt Welsh.  This website prefers to remember him for that. 

 

References

Billboard.  "'Louie' Publishers Say Tune Not Dirty at All."  February 8, 1964, pp. 4, 57.

Faggen, Gil. "Indiana Gov. Puts Down 'Pornographic' Wand Tune."  Billboard, February 1, 1964, p. 3.

Indianapolis Star.  "Young Singers Dismiss As Hooey Obscenity Charge in 'Louie, Louie.'"  January 24, 1964, p. 10.

Indianapolis Star.  "Musical Garbage (editorial)."  January 27, 1964, p. 14.

Marsh, Dave.  Louie Louie.  New York:  Hyperion Press, 1993.

Welsh, Matthew E.  View from the State House.  Indianapolis:  Indiana Historical Bureau, 1981.